By SAM DILLON | NY Times
March 16, 2010
Facing intense resistance from teachers’ unions, the Obama administration has begun trying to persuade union leaders, teachers and the public that its proposals for overhauling federal education policies are good for teachers and for public schools.
In remarks prepared for delivery to Congress on Wednesday, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan argued that the proposed policies would elevate the teaching profession by encouraging better tests, by ending the demoralizing practice of mislabeling thousands of schools as failures and by offering teachers opportunities for career growth.
“We think there is a lot in our proposal that teachers will like,” Mr. Duncan said in the prepared testimony, a copy of which The New York Times obtained on Tuesday.
But the union leaders were not easily convinced. In interviews, they said the administration’s proposal for rewriting the main law outlining federal policies on public schooling, No Child Left Behind, would continue what they called an overemphasis on standardized tests, impose federal mandates on issues traditionally handled in collective bargaining, and probably lead to mass firings of teachers in low-performing schools.
“Teachers alone cannot turn around struggling schools, and the administration’s plans put 100 percent of the responsibility on teachers,” said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, which represents 1.3 million members.
Dennis Van Roekel, president of the National Education Association, which represents 3.2 million members, also criticized the plan. “They say they are offering flexibility and an end to micromanaging our schools,” he said, “but the administration’s blueprint mandates to 15,000 school districts how they should evaluate and compensate teachers.”
Over the weekend, the administration released a 41-page blueprint for rewriting the No Child law, and the president sent it to Congress on Monday.
Both Ms. Weingarten and Mr. Van Roekel immediately criticized the administration’s proposals. In Mr. Duncan’s remarks, prepared for his scheduled appearance in back-to-back hearings before the Senate and House education committees on Wednesday, he outlined the administration’s views on teachers, the teaching profession, and how the blueprint would affect both. The two unions campaigned vigorously for Mr. Obama in 2008.
“We begin with the understanding that teaching is some of the toughest and most important work in society, and we are deeply committed to making it a better profession,” Mr. Duncan said.
He said the administration was requesting $3.9 billion, an increase of $350 million, to strengthen the teaching profession.
The proposals, Mr. Duncan said, would encourage states and school districts to develop better teacher evaluation systems, better teacher education programs, and more effective career advancement systems.
“We need to rebuild education as a profession with real opportunities for growth,” he said.
The administration’s plan for the No Child revision would, if enacted by Congress, replace the law’s accountability system, based around the goal of bringing all students to proficiency in reading and math by 2014, with another intended to help all students graduate from high school ready for college and career by 2020. The current system has labeled one in three of the nation’s 98,000 schools as failing, far more than any level of government can help, and the process has left many teachers demoralized.
The administration’s proposal would instead focus the most intense school turnaround efforts on about 5,000 of the most chronically failing schools.
Both union presidents said, however, that the administration’s plans would compel school districts to choose from among four school intervention models, which they described as unfair to teachers, to receive federal money to finance the turnarounds. Three of the four models would involve dismissing teachers and principals.
Still reverberating through the debate was the decision last month by a Rhode Island school board, following the administration’s recommendations, to fire all 93 teachers at the local high school, a move both Mr. Duncan and President Obama endorsed.
Ms. Weingarten said the administration’s proposals would require districts to begin overhauling thousands of low-performing schools in coming months, even though new teacher evaluation systems might not be ready for years. “Under these proposals, school districts can carry out mass firings of teachers, without any evidence that a valid evaluation system is in place or being used,” she said